Alcohol's Link to Heart Health found in a Molecule

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Drinking alcohol in moderation is linked to heart health, and now researchers have a clue how that happens. Findings from scientists at University of Rochester say moderate drinking blocks a molecule known at Notch, preventing buildup of smooth muscle cells in the arteries that can lead to heart attack and stroke

The Notch signaling pathway is well known to scientists, plays a role in maintaining endothelial function, and has several functions related to the cardiovascular system.

Eileen M. Redmond, Ph.D., lead study author and associate professor in the Department of Surgery and her team decided to study the effect of the molecule because its influence on growth, migration or death of vascular smooth muscle cells that contribute to heart disease and death. They also wanted to know why there is a 20 to 40 percent lower chance of developing or dying from heart disease among light to moderate drinkers.

Discovery of how alcohol prevents heart disease could lead to new therapy

Dr. Redmond explains it’s not that doctors should prescribe alcohol to prevent heart disease, but “If we can figure out at the basic science level how alcohol is beneficial… hopefully it “will lead to the development of a new therapy for the millions of people with coronary heart disease”, something the scientists hope can happen in the future.

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Redmond also notes, “Any understanding of a socially acceptable, modifiable activity that many people engage in, like drinking, is useful as we continue to search for new ways to improve health.”

For the study, the scientists examined the effects of moderate amounts of alcohol on human and mice arteries, finding that moderate drinking reversed the action of Notch, leaving blood vessels free from plaque that can limit blood flow and lead to heart attacks.

In human coronary arteries, treatment with moderate amounts of alcohol specifically inhibited the Notch 1 pathway, blocking the signals that promote smooth muscle cell growth. In mice, the equivalent of two drinks a day inhibited the molecule inside the blood vessel wall and significantly reduced thickening of the carotid arteries that can lead to stroke.

“Now that we’ve identified Notch as a cell signaling pathway regulated by alcohol, we’re going to delve deeper into the nuts and bolts of the process to try to find out exactly how alcohol inhibits Notch in smooth muscle cells” – something the researchers say won’t be easy because it’s a complex system.

The authors concluded,.."our studies point to an intriguing vascular cell-specific effect of ETOH." The study is the first to uncover how moderate drinking, generally considered one to three alcoholic beverages a day, might contribute to cardiovascular health by inhibiting cell signaling via the Notch pathway. The researchers hope to someday develop therapies that mimic the heart healthy effects of alcohol.

Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology. 2010;30:2597